When Los Angeles Galaxy defender Daniel Steres played Orlando City midfielder Kaka last month, it was a mismatch.
Steres, a rookie, will earn a league minimum base salary of $62,500 this season. Kaka, a former world player of the year with two World Cups on his resume, is guaranteed $7.17 million, making him the highest-paid player in MLS history.
So what did Orlando City get for its extra $7.1 million?
Not much. Steres, a defender, played more minutes, had more touches, made more passes and even outshot Kaka, an attacking midfielder, in a 4-2 Galaxy home win. There's little correlation between salary and the scoresheet this year in MLS, where attackers are paid millions to score goals against defenders who are paid a relative pittance.
According to figures released by the players union, only two of the league's 23 millionaires — Colorado goalkeeper Tim Howard and Portland defender Liam Ridgewell — are primarily defensive players. Meanwhile, 56 defenders, including Steres, will earn no more than $70,000.
That's an imbalance that's difficult to ignore in a league in which scoring is up more than 13 percent since 2010. Some players say the emphasis on signing high-priced attackers rather than skilled and experienced defenders is partly to blame.
"The beauty of this league is that there are less tactics," Italian midfielder Sebastian Giovinco, who had a MLS-best 22 goals for Toronto FC as a rookie last year, said through a translator. "For attackers it's better because there are more chances to score. But for a defender, it's maybe not the best."
Team and league executives are unapologetic.
"That's a trend worldwide," said Matt Jordan, general manager of the Houston Dynamo. "The hardest skill in the world is to put the ball in the back of the net. So it's normally going to pay the high-skilled guys the most money."
That is especially true in a young league such as MLS, which needs star power to carve out a niche in a crowded sports landscape. "People come to see goals," said Galaxy president Chris Klein.
MLS attendance has risen as scoring has gone up. But there are other reasons why strikers drive luxury cars and defenders take the bus.
For starters there's the dichotomous salary structure. MLS has a two-tiered minimum wage, guaranteeing players on the senior and supplemental rosters at least $62,500, while players on the reserve roster can be paid $11,000 less.
There is also a salary ceiling of $3.66 million per team — but it's one the league allows clubs to violate through its designated-player rule, under which three players on each roster can earn unlimited salaries that don't fully count against the cap. That has allowed teams to spend lavishly on foreign talent, then balance the budget by filling their rosters with low-paid domestic players. The imports tend to be scorers — the 11 highest-paid MLS players are midfielders or forwards who previously played in Europe — while the cheap domestic players have traditionally been defenders.
"For a long time America produced more defenders than attackers," Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "And when you're looking to fill out a roster ... if you can get Americans to play well in defense and defensive midfield, then you tend to use your foreign spots on those attacking players.
"Right now we spend more money on attacking players. Should they be better than the players that make less money? Yes, they should be."
Still, the wide spread in pay is both unpopular and untenable. In a preseason poll conducted by ESPN, more than 8 in 10 MLS players surveyed took exception to a salary structure largely segregated by position.
"It's just hard to say that it's fair when you can be making $60,000 and a guy on your team is making $8 million," one player said. "You don't see gaps like that in other leagues."
In fact, you don't see anything close to it.
In baseball the highest-paid player, Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, makes 63 times the league minimum of $507,000, slightly larger than the gap separating Cleveland's LeBron James from the lowest-paid NBA rookie. The salary of the Kings' Anze Kopitar, hockey's best-paid player, is about 24 times the minimum in the NHL. The NFL's richest man, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, earns about 54 times the league minimum of $450,000.
In MLS, there are 11 players making 54 times the minimum wage. And Kaka earns more than 130 times the minimum wage.
MLS has moved to close that gap. Believing the league's improvement is tied to middle-class players — those who deserve more than minimum but not as much as designated players — MLS gave each team an additional $1.6 million in league money last winter to spend on salaries over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Of the 52 players currently receiving the Targeted Allocation Money, 13 are defenders and 10 are forwards.
"With our salary budget and DPs, there is a natural tendency to pay more for attacking players," Klein, the Galaxy's president, said. "In saying that, if you look at our team, one of the big characteristics is we defend very well.
"Certainly people want to come out and see Robbie Keane score goals. But at the end of the day, what teams are learning is they have to win games or nothing else matters."
And in that equation, a goal saved is just as important as one scored, no matter how much it costs.
— Dallas Morning News
In MLS, there are 11 players making 54 times the minimum wage. And Kaka earns more than 130 times the MLS minimum.
Carli Lloyd has been a member of the U.S. women's national soccer team since 2005, and there has been a certain symmetry to the biggest moments of her career. She scored the game-winning goals that gave the Americans the gold medal at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and she scored a hat trick in the 2015 Women's World Cup final as the United States won the sport's showpiece for a third time.
Now, at 34 and with her public profile at its peak, Lloyd is at the heart of the national team during a period that has featured success (at the World Cup) and disappointment (at the Rio Olympics), as well as controversy surrounding her teammates. Amid it all, Lloyd has also released a memoir, and in a recent interview she discussed those matters.
Q: How did you go about writing a book?
A: It's kind of funny — when I first started this journey in 2005 with the national team, my trainer, James Galanis, said: "Make sure you keep a journal of everything that happens to you in the national team, because one day we're going to write a book." And so I kept this journal from the start. I have six or seven thick notebooks, and I just kept writing throughout. I've actually continued the journal now, and I've started to type it. So I'm getting a little bit with the times.
With so much success at the Olympics in your career, what was it like to lose in the Rio quarterfinals?
Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you get ready for something, you just never know. It's sport. It happens. It was hard. It was disappointing. Coming back from Rio the next morning, and turning on the television and watching the Olympics — it was really hard to swallow, really hard to watch.
Hope Solo made controversial comments after the loss to Sweden, calling the Swedes cowards for their team's defensive strategy in the game. She was ultimately suspended, in part for that and in part for previous incidents. What was your reaction?
I look at her comments, and I think you can take it in two different contexts. Obviously, she has respect for Sweden and their team. It wasn't a jab at their players; it was their style of play. I think it was heat of the moment.
Would it have been portrayed differently if she were a male figure? It probably would have, to be honest. People aren't used to females speaking their minds. But it's unfortunate for her. I'm saddened over the situation.
More recently, there has been a lot of focus on Megan Rapinoe and her decision to kneel during the national anthem. You have said you felt the demonstration became a distraction. Why?
I've had several conversations with Megan about it, and we're fine, but when the question came up to me, "Is it a distraction?" It is a distraction.
It consumed all nine days that we were together. It consumed our staff and the players and all of us.
Did it affect your relationship with Megan at all?
Megan and I are fine. I was texting with her .... making sure that one line wasn't misleading to her. At the end of the day, we're pros. We have to be able to perform no matter what is going on in our personal lives.
It's just distracting because we're focusing on, is she going to kneel or is she not going to kneel? There's not a lot of people in the soccer world who are talking about the actual cause. So I think it's finding that balance of how to get your word out but not let it inject itself into the team.
The biggest focus on the team now may be its equal-pay fight. Do you think a strike is a possibility?
We had a meeting with our union attorney, and we're trying to set up a new round of negotiations. As for a strike, we haven't really gotten into that yet. These things tend to be very last-minute. ... I don't know what will happen. Anything is possible.